doi:10.1038/nindia.2013.23 Published online 18 February 2013
Have you struggled to read an SMS written in the Roman script but containing words in your native language, say Hindi? How many times have you thought it would be less of an effort to use a native language keyboard to chat with your family rather than typing those words in the English script?
Brain scientists now say they know precisely why we find this task more difficult1. Neurological experiments conducted at the Speech and Language Laboratory of the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC) in Haryana suggest that the brain has to go through a lot more processing to figure out a transliterated word than one written in the traditional script itself.
"Reading transliterated Romanised text imposes an additional cognitive demand. Its signature is evident on people — both behaviourally and at the neural level," says Nandini Chatterjee Singh, one of the scientists at NBRC part of this interesting study.
Romanized transliteration is widely used in internet communication and global commerce, yet little is known about its behavioural and neural processing.
This is what the researchers did to figure it out — they set up a group of 15 'biscriptal' readers who could read and write in both English and Devanagari, the script for Hindi. Through functional neuroimaging and behavioural experimemts they studied the effect of this hybrid text, which they interestingly call 'Romanagari' (Devanagari written in English) on the brain.
The neuroscientists found that readers faced greater difficulty in identifying words written in Romanized transliteration (Romanagari) compared to either English written in Roman script or Hindi written in Devanagari. Images of the brain taken during the experiment revealed that the 'neural cost' of processing transliterations arose from significantly greater use of two networks of the brain – language and attention.
Moreover, the hybrid text was found to activate attention and control areas more as compared to the 'pure' language texts.
"The neural effort of reading Romanized transliteration is because of the additional effort the brain has to go through to associate the sound of the words with text written in another unfamiliar language," Chatterjee Singh told Nature India.
"In the absence of native language keyboards, such transliterated text is the new lingua franca of global communication," she adds.
Given the worldwide prevalence of Romanized input in non-English text processors, the researchers suggest that incorporating early formal instruction in Romanized transliteration might equip individuals to cope with the demands of the brain better.